Independent football writing : fighting a losing battle

in Features

‘A picture paints a thousand words’ is probably the most idiotic idiom every verbalised. I’m not being facetious when I say it just never made any sense to me. What’s a picture without context? Without some background information? A picture/photograph wrangles and captures a split second from time times infinity. Why restrict and condense a story to something so singular? You can’t look out through your letterbox and tell me what the world looks like.

Sadly the phrase encapsulates modern journalism perfectly. More accurately I guess it would be “a picture replaces a thousand words”.

From my own little niches perspective, it’s a crippling and disheartening reality. As part of the amateur football writing fraternity for the past few years, I’ve witnessed dozens of fantastic independent football sites and blogs come and go, all washed away, their voices drowned out by “new media”.

When I say “new media” I’m talking about any site with LAD affixed to its name on one end or the other. You know the kind of sites I mean – they share dozens of photos, memes, photos of tweets, photos of reactions to tweets etc. all accompanied by 100 words or so, complete with hashtags and emojis. They produce hundreds of mindless transfer rumour stories, linking random players with arbitrary clubs, suckering the reader in with allusive headlines.

It’s grim stuff – but this is football writing today. This is news today. This is journalism today. How can anyone not be horrified by that?

People want instant news and information – if a story cannot be consumed in under a minute, people have been conditioned to give up on it. There is a digital land grab of sorts, a scramble for hits and page views. Numbers and visitors are the mark of online success, not quality of content.

This is the tl;dr generation. For people not cool enough (people like me) to know what that means, it simply means ‘too long ; didn’t read’.  And we aren’t talking about too long as in book chapter long, but the recommended article length for the internet stands at around the 300 word mark. That’s approximately the last five paragraphs back up the page from this point.

That’s what internet marketing and SEO (search engine optimisation) companies will tell you. 300 words MAXIMUM or people just won’t read it. They will also tell you to identify a “keyword” for your article and make sure to cram that word into your maximum 300 as many times as humanly possible no matter how weird and unnatural it makes the piece seem.

Those marketers would hold the LAD (and similar) sites up as shining examples of what modern internet publishing should be. And admittedly, these sites are insanely popular, but their rise to power is evidence that we are letting the idiots win. You could argue of course, that it’s each to their own – everyone will have their preferred method of content consumption. Not everybody wants to read 1000+ long form articles. But such is the dominance of this “new media”, the pool of readers who do want a more informative read is evaporating fast.

An outstandingly written 1500 word football article (yes they are still out there) is likely to get 0.001% of the social media engagement a duckface photo of Jack Wilshere in a baseball cap will. A completely fabricated transfer story linking Ibrahimovic to Leicester City would thrash that same outstanding article in the numbers stakes too.

“Like for Messi, share for Ronaldo” – that will be the epitaph on the tombstone of quality football writing.

That quality writing is still out there if you look hard enough. There is still a small dedicated underground army of writers producing insanely good content and all of it for free. The stuff they write would be the inverse of SEO marketer’s article dos and don’ts.  They write informative, witty, insightful and finely crafted opinion pieces and historical features, but they get a tiny fraction of the attention they deserve.

In fact, we have come full circle in terms of recognizing and rewarding good writing. If I post an article on Facebook that people seem to like, Facebook will send me a message along the lines of “Your article X is proving popular, boost it for €16 to reach more readers”.

Basically they are telling you, your article is great and is being well received by people, so you should pay more people to read it! How insanely twisted is that? How many potential wordsmiths are we losing to this odd, badly warped set up? Not only is it near impossible to earn a living as a writer these days, but now you should pay people to read your own stuff?

Should JK Rowling pay people to read the new Harry Potter? Why does that sound more laughable than what’s happening online right now?

Of course you could claw some of that money back through advertising – right? Wrong. You get paid cents per thousand readers. If you are lucky enough to have 10,000 people reading your stuff a week, you might make a tenner and truthfully, it’s probably not even that much. You might earn enough to cover your website hosting costs, but even that’s unlikely.

Imagine each of those 10,000 readers had to give you 10c to read your writing. Just ten lousy cent. That would be a thousand quid a week for your trouble. Suddenly you have an excellent salary for doing something you love and that people appreciate and enjoy.

Am I saying we should move towards an internet where you pay for everything you read? Of course that seems alien and a bit nuts. It will certainly never happen, but all I guess I’m trying to say is that writers should be rewarded more for their work, especially when it proves popular. That doesn’t sound all that unfair does it?

Maybe it’s Googles fault – according to their product description, their Adsense system is built to reward unique and interesting content. But while you make cents, they make tens of millions by syndicating your website with thousands of others to sell space on your site to their advertising clients. They are using your product (your writing), monetizing it in a major way, while passing pittance to you. It’s one of the greatest cons of the internet age.

It is akin to standing outside somebody’s shop, and selling the shops stock to customers before they enter, taking 99% of the money, leaving the other 1% to the shop owner.

As an independent writer/blogger, you used to be able to supplement your income by selling sponsored links within your articles from time to time. An example of this might be the placement of a link to a casino or betting website organically within a normal article. Marketing companies would pay you 50 or 60 quid for something like that in a one off payment, which could help a little with a site’s running costs. But Google didn’t like that.

Now if you publish a sponsored post or link, Google will actively look to “punish” your website by reducing it’s ranking in their search engine results, strangling your traffic and effecting your readership.

They think that that 50 or 60 quid should go to them through their Adsense progams and ad placements. You deserve one cent of it. How dare you cut out the middle man and maximise the earning potential of your own product.

So why would anyone maintain an amateur independent football blog I hear you ask? It’s simply for the love of it. It’s for that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you see thousands of strangers taking the time to read your opinion about something, then critiquing and discussing it with you.

Nobody gets in to it expecting to make any money. That’s not why any of us started in the first place. But that still doesn’t mean that the financial dividends for having thousands of readers shouldn’t be more rewarding.  We shouldn’t have to lose so many good writers to a system that bleeds them dry and gives nothing back.

So what can you do as a reader to help support football’s underground writing society? Beyond appreciating the hours they put in to writing about football, if you see a donate button on any independent site, why not throw them a few pounds/euro?

If you enjoy an article on their site, take the time to tell them or confirm you did by liking it on Facebook, Twitter or whatever social media platform you prefer. Share it if you want to go one step further.

Every little helps and each time you interact with an article, you could be rescuing a new reader from the clutches of the “LADs”. Because we are better than them. You are better than them.

Don’t let quality independent football writing, blogs and websites disappear beneath the expanding turgid sludge of new media. The football landscape would be a far bleaker place without them.

by Simon Winter

Twitter: @simonjwinter